Ryan Alexander-Tanner

IT FEELS LIKE a pointless cliché these days to say so, but too many of the city's roads are terrible.

The Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) says nearly 60 miles of city streets lack any pavement at all. Others don't have sidewalks, or curbs, or proper drainage.

And it turns out there's a pretty big reason so many roads still lack these basic improvements: The city often doesn't require anyone to pay for fixes.

Under city code, developers are supposed to provide things like sidewalks and curbs in front of the projects they build. But in at least 12,500 cases over the last two decades or so, the city's let them slide.

That's because developers have found it easy to win something called a "waiver of remonstrance" that pushes the onus for improvements onto the eventual owner of the property. It's up to the city to collect money to make fixes. The city rarely does, if ever.

I learned all of this last week, when PBOT unveiled a project it's been quietly working on to right this untenable situation. The bureau is proposing a new street fee aimed at ensuring that developers pay for the improvements the city needs.

It won't be cheap, either.

An ordinance slated to go before Portland City Council on March 30 would create a new charge developers can choose to pay: $600 per foot of road frontage for single-family homes they build on many unimproved roads. Given a typical Portland lot size of 50 feet by 100 feet, that's $30,000 a pop.

If developers opt for that so-called Local Transportation Infrastructure Charge (LTIC), they'll be free of any obligation to improve roads in front of their projects. And PBOT thinks it's going to be quite popular.

Spokesperson Dylan Rivera says the fee should draw between $500,000 and $1 million a year, which would go into a pot that pays for high-priority road improvements around the city. If the charge had been around for the last two decades, PBOT believes it would have generated a whopping $375 million—enough to fix roughly 63 percent of the city's under-improved roadways.

But there's a big question attached to the new fee: Can it fix the problem? [Eds. note: See correction below.]

According to Rivera, it's fairly easy, if time consuming, for developers to get a waiver absolving them of responsibility for fixing up roads. Two-thirds of the people who apply for those waivers win them, in some form or another.

Despite that success rate, PBOT's assuming that developers will gladly fork over $30,000 or more for the convenience of skipping the waiver process. But evidence for that is hard to find in the historical record the city's offered up.

Essentially, the choice developers will have under the new charge is: pay thousands of dollars more for a project, or apply for a waiver.

That's the same choice they've had for the last two decades. You know, when 12,500 of them won waivers, and the city never saw a dime for road improvements.

But, hey, maybe it'll work.

DEPT. OF CORRECTIONS: Since we went to press, PBOT has informed the Mercury that information it supplied to us was incorrect. The bureau does not intend to offer waivers as an option alongside the LTIC proposal, as we were told repeatedly by PBOT. It would instead be an either/or proposition for developers: Either pay the charge or build curbs, sidewalks, etc. The Mercury regrets the error.